Wednesday, June 25, 2014



Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), Sketch for a Self-Portrait (New York: Pantheon, 1949), pp. 174-175 (completed in 1941):
My library contains nearly everything, although not everything that my lust for knowledge requires. It is rare that I cannot lay hands on a publication referred to in whatever volume I happen to be reading. For fifty years and more I have been gathering books for the time when I should have leisure. I have never bought a book for its rarity from a collector's point of view. I was not aware of possessing an all but unicum in the shape of a sixteenth-century pamphlet regarding Michelangelo that my friend Ernst Steinmann discovered on my shelves—the Steinmann who not only was one of the most fruitful workers in the Renaissance field but the spiritual founder and first director of the Anglo-German-Jewish institution for liberal learning called the Hertziana, at present serving Nazi propaganda rather than culture of any kind. My books are books for use, tools, not works of art, although I take more pleasure in reading Dichtung—poetry, whether in verse or prose—in shapely type on a well-set page of hand-made paper, crisp, elastic, almost musical as you turn a leaf. I certainly enjoy the Bible, Saint Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Wordsworth, Goethe, Keats, Shelley, etc., etc., much more in the Doves, the Ashendene, the Bremen presses than I do in ordinary editions. But nothing would induce me to read a seventeenth-century author in the wretched print of that period, certainly not Shakespeare in the first and the following folio—as distressing to the eye as to the understanding. And yet America takes pride in a citizen whose wealth and lack of imagination enabled him to accumulate twenty copies of the first folio. With what object, one may ask, except the sadistic one of preventing nineteen other libraries from deriving what little philological profit or associative sentimentality their possession can still yield?

For me the main object is to have books at hand so as to be able to use them when one is piping hot with eagerness for them and malleably receptive to what one can get out of them. If survival after death were conceivable, I should wish to be the indwelling soul of my house and library. To speak more grossly, I should like to haunt it, and use it the way the archangels did in one of Anatole France's stories.

So after a fashion I have attained Goethe's promise that what one ardently desires when young one will realize in old age. I am not far from my nirvana, I am in sight of IT.

And IT is a feeling of oneness with the landscape, with the house, and all that therein is, with the folk that pass, with the people one frequents, with one's occupation whether mental or manual, a oneness so complete that it knows nothing outside itself. In other words IT is a mystic union.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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